SALT LAKE CITY — The hopeful look in the eyes of Pioneer Park Coalition members I met with Tuesday afternoon was familiar. I’ve seen it so many times before on the faces of others.
When I asked the coalition’s executive director, David Garbett, whether he believes this time, really and truly, the city’s most centrally located park — once the site of a Mormon pioneer fort built in 1847, but for decades now the city’s largest open-air drug market — can be turned into a family friendly, bring-your-sack-lunch-and-enjoy-the-afternoon kind of place, he didn’t hesitate.
“I certainly think so,” he said. “We don’t have the families back in yet, and I think part of the reason for that is reputation.”
Reputation, and perhaps the bedraggled people who still hang out there. The park’s poor reputation has been built over several decades. It might not be easy to change unless the cleanup is so thorough heavenly choirs descend once an hour to entertain people on solid gold park benches.
Pioneer Park has long been that broken and tarnished jewel the city keeps in an old box, pulling out occasionally to polish and believing someday it can afford to fix and restore fully.
The first time I wrote about it in this column was 1995. The city, under Mayor Deedee Corradini’s leadership, had just unveiled its latest blueprint for making things right. The plan called for turning the park into the center of a “funky, lively, mixed-use urban neighborhood.”
This was one year after a 17-year-old boy and his father had been shot for refusing to buy drugs from a man, a crime so shocking it led to a concerted round-the-clock police crackdown that put the park in a state of almost martial law for weeks.
After that, the Rio Grande Neighborhood Coalition staged a celebration to mark the occasion of reclaiming the park from drug dealers. But within two years, Corradini had to close the park for three weeks to reclaim it again.
Her administration built drinking fountains, tennis courts, a sand-volleyball court, picnic areas and new restrooms. All of it failed.
Now the Pioneer Park Coalition wants to spend $300,000 in private money, which would be added to $544,000 from the city, to make improvements. The eventual plan calls for a multi-use field (think youth soccer), a plaza for community events and lights to keep people out of the shadows. Those restrooms Corradini built have become shelters for crime. They will be destroyed.
“There are certain things we’re not going to accept down there,” coalition board member Tiffanie Provost told the combined editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL. She mentioned injecting drugs in the open and discarding the needles on the ground as among them.
So, chalk up one more plan for the park. What’s different this time?
You can start with Operation Rio Grande. Led by the speaker of the House, this multi-jurisdictional effort has kept an unprecedented spotlight on the neighborhood and its homeless shelter for months now, and the criminal element has dispersed.
You used to hear people say it would do little good to just push the criminals into other neighborhoods. Now conventional wisdom says this is preferable to what the neighborhood had become — a lawless concentration of brazen criminals.
The politicians promise to keep the heat on until new shelters open across the valley in 2019. They also say they don’t want to push the homeless out of the park, just the criminals.
Yet, even this has echoes to the past. It’s hard not to be cynical until you let go and consider one thing — the park itself.
In a metro area where so many people believe in redemption, there is something ennobling about watching people try, again and again, to reclaim something so important to a city’s history.
Pioneer Park is worth the effort. Its history speaks of new beginnings and a hopeful vision amid bleak circumstances — a struggle many of us can relate to in some way, small or large.
The pioneers, homeless when they arrived there, left a heritage that won’t allow us to abandon the place. For that reason alone, we should cautiously cheer any concerted effort to make the park what it ought to be.
Despite a legacy of misfires, that hopeful look in the eyes of people who care is something every city should cultivate.